Is Working in Eretz Yisrael a Mitzva?
Our Rabbis taught: “And you shall gather in your grain” [Devarim 11:14]. What is to be learnt from these words? Since it says, “This book of the law must not depart from your mouth,” [Yehoshua 1:8] I might think that this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore, it says, “And you shall gather in your grain,” which implies that you are to combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation. This is the view of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: “Is that possible? If a man plows in the plowing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah? No; but when Israel perform the will of the Omnipresent, their work is performed by others, as it says, ‘And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,’ etc.
[Yeshaya 61:5]; and when Israel do not perform the will of the Omnipresent their work is carried out by themselves, as it says, ‘And you shall gather in your grain.’ Nor is this all, but the work of others also is done by them, as it says ‘And you shall serve your enemy,’ etc. [Devarim28:48] Abayye said: “Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael, and it worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai and it did not work well.” [Berachot 35b]
The Argument Between Tana’im
In contrast to the typical halachic argument among Tana’im, the disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has far-reaching implications on Jews’ lifestyle and is not limited to a single detail.
Rabbi Yishmael’s approach is that men must work for their livelihood and in addition, study Torah. He proves his approach based upon Biblical verses. Twice daily we recite the words “If you carefully obey My commands, I am giving you today … and you shall gather your grain” [Devarim11:13-14]. God promises Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) that it will be able to gather its grain from the fields if they are diligent in fulfilling mitzvot. Thus it is clear that working the fields is a desirable and blessed endeavor.
In contrast, Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai’s opinion is that one must engage solely in Torah study, and one’s livelihood will be provided. Bar Yocḥai also cites verses which support his approach. Yeshaya prophesies “And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,” implying that in the ideal situation a Jew will not need to tend his flocks by himself, because the work will be done on his behalf by gentiles.
The Argument is Limited to Eretz Yisrael
After presenting the opinions of Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai, the Gemara concludes with Abayye’s summary: “Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael, and it worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai and it did not work well.” Abayye’s statement is not a determination of which of the Tana’im’s opinions is correct, but merely noting that in practice many who followed the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael – combining work and Torah study – were successful, while not many who followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai’s opinion – that the exclusive focus is to be on Torah study – were successful. Nonetheless, since this is the concluding comment of the Gemara‘s discussion, it seems clear that the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael was accepted.
Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber 1762 – 1839) [Commentary on Pesaḥim 36a] raises a problem. As noted, the implication of the Gemara‘s discussion is that the combination of work and Torah is to be preferred over exclusive engagement in Torah study. How then, asks Chatam Sofer, that for generations Diaspora Jewry engaged exclusively in Torah study and did not teach its sons trades? In answering this question, Chatam Sofer suggests a novel understanding of the disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, positing that their disagreement exclusively concerns Eretz Yisrael, while outside the Land there is universal agreement that we must act in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The reason for the distinction between Eretz Yisrael and other lands results from the fact that “working the soil in Eretz Yisrael is itself a mitzva, as a matter of settling the Land and in order to bring forth her holy fruit.” The novelty of Chatam Sofer‘s approach is in suggesting that working the land in Eretz Yisrael is actually a mitzva. Because of this mitzva, Rabbi Yishmael is of the opinion that within the Land one may not focus solely upon Torah study. As Chatam Sofer notes, just as one may not say “I will not put on tefilin because I am engaged in Torah study,” so too he may not say “I shall not gather my grain from the field since I am engaged in Torah study.” That is, working the fields of Eretz Yisrael is an actual mitzva, which Chatam Sofer asserts is parallel to putting on tefilin.
Chatam Sofer adduces proof of the validity of his position from Boaz, who winnowed his barley [Ruth 3:2] and from Elisha, who plowed his father’s field with a yoke of oxen [I Kings 19:19]; clearly, such great personalities would not be engaged in agricultural work when they should be engaged in Torah study. Thus, their working their fields demonstrates that such work is an actual mitzva, as a practical aspect of the mitzva to settle Eretz Yisrael. The mitzva to work fields obviously does not apply outside Eretz Yisrael, since we are not commanded to settle Hungary. Therefore, Rabbi Yishmael accepts the validity of Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai’s opinion outside the Land.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai Agrees with Rabbi Yishmael in Eretz Yisrael
Chatam Sofer apparently contradicts himself. In his commentary on Parashat Shofetim, Chatam Sofer again addresses the disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai, writing there that Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai accepts Rabbi Yishmael’s position concerning Eretz Yisrael, agreeing that within the Land it is mandatory to work the fields. If Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai agrees with Rabbi Yishmael concerning Eretz Yisrael and Rabbi Yishmael agrees with Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai abroad, wherein lies the argument?
A careful analysis of Chatam Sofer‘s words will lead to a new understanding which will resolve the apparent contradiction. He writes:
It seems to me that when Am Yisrael is within its Land, the mitzva to gather produce is not a matter of livelihood, since the words of Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai and Rabbi Nehorai are valid. Rather, it is an aspect of the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael (that is, Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai’s position is correct in principle, but is waived due to the mitzva of settlingEretz Yisrael) and for this reason Boaz winnowed his barley and Elisha plowed his father’s field. In practical terms, the position of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai and Rabbi Nehorai applies when we are scattered among the nations which have a sufficient number of tradesmen and do not require us, and engaging in a trade is simply a matter of livelihood. Under such conditions “I abandon all the trades in the world and teach my son only Torah.”
The Disagreement Concerns Work Done to Earn a Livelihood
We may suggest the following understanding of Chatam Sofer‘s words:
There are two scenarios for people to work:
1. Work done to earn a livelihood;
2. Work done for the sake of fulfilling the mitzva to settle Eretz Yisrael.
Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai are in agreement that work done outside the Land to a earn a livelihood does not overcome he mitzva to study Torah, as Chatam Sofer stated in his comments on the Gemara; under such conditions, Chatam Sofer‘s opinion is that Rabbi Yishmael agrees that one must engage exclusively in Torah study. Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai are in agreement on an additional point: work done in the fields of Eretz Yisrael in fulfillment of the mitzva to settle the Land is to be done even at the expense of Torah study, as Boaz and Elisha did. This is true because the mitzvaof Torah study does not exempt one from fulfilling his obligation to perform other mitzvot. It is this situation which Chatam Sofer addressed in his comments on the parasha, and thus he asserted that Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai agrees that in Eretz Yisrael the fields are to be worked.
The difference of opinion between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai is focused on one who works his field in the Land as a matter of livelihood. Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai is of the pinion that since the work is done as a matter of livelihood, rather than in fulfillment of the mitzva to settle the Land, there is no exemption from Torah study. Rabbi Yishmael holds that since, in the end, the worker fulfills a mitzva, even if his intention if earning his livelihood, he may engage in settling the Land in addition to Torah study.
It is likely that there are alternate resolutions of the apparent contradiction in Chatam Sofer‘s words, but in any event, there is one clear lesson: work done in Eretz Yisrael is not merely for the sake of earning money, but it is a mitzva! Just as tefilin and lulav are mitzvot, so too working the Land is a mitzva. This being the case, even leading personalities, such as Boaz, who was the head of the Sanhedrin [Midrash Ruth Rabba5:10] and the prophet Elisha, Eliyahu’s successor, worked the fields of Eretz Yisrael, despite the fact that their work diminished their Torah study.
Thank God, after years in exile, during which the Nation of Israel was able to work only for its livelihood, we have been privileged to live in the Land in which work is a mitzva.
May it be God’s will that we serve Him in all of our actions.
 Since Chatam Sofer‘s position is novel, we shall quote his words:
Rabbi Yishmael understands the verse “And you shall gather in your grain” to apply only within Eretz Yisrael, when the majority of Jews are found in the Land; under such conditions, working the Land is itself a mitzva, as a matter of settling the Land and in order to bring forth her holy fruit. This is the meaning of the Torah’s words “and you shall gather your grain,” and Boaz winnowed his barley in fulfillment of this mitzva. Just as one may not say “I will not put on tefilin because I am engaged in Torah study,” so too he may not say “I shall not gather my grain from the field since I am engaged in Torah study.” It is possible that other trades (besides agriculture) which contribute to settling the Land are included within this mitzva. However, now that as a result of our numerous sins, we are dispersed among the nations of the world, Rabbi Yishmael accepts the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai and Rabbi Nehorai expressed in the Mishnaat the end of Tractate Kiddushin [4:14] “I abandon all the trades in the world and teach my son only Torah.” This applies outside Eretz Yisrael, as we have noted above.
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